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Stacking Up: Global Rankings in Knowledge and Innovation

April 24, 2023 —Every nation wants to be ranked at the top, whether it’s Olympic gold medals or Nobel prizes. In terms of R&D, global competition is the impetus to accelerate innovation to get (or stay) on top. Innovation rankings are published annually to illustrate how countries compare. Without a global standard the results are fodder for science and technology leaders to argue the merits, but they’re definitely paying attention.

Measuring up

In the 2022 United Nations’ Global Knowledge Index (GKI) Report, the United States takes the first-place spot in the rankings with a value of 68.7 out of 100. But how does one measure a country’s collective knowledge? The GKI measures seven sub-indices: pre-university education; technical and vocational education and training; higher education; research, development and innovation; information and communication technologies; economy; and enabling environment. Each sub-index is broken down into different factors that determine a ranking, all of which compute to the overall GKI value.

Of all the categories, “economy” is the most influential because so many of the others rely on a nation’s economy for the funding aspect of R&D. The GKI analyzes economic competitiveness, infrastructure investment, business agility, economic openness, trade and diversification, financial openness, financing and domestic value added, financing and taxes, and domestic value added.

Economic factors also figure prominently in the Global Innovation Index (GII), published by the World Intellectual Property Organization, which is specifically designed to measure innovation economies. The index is calculated through several categories: institutions; human capital and research; infrastructure; market sophistication; business sophistication; knowledge and technology outputs; and creative outputs—all of which are directly tied to the countries’ economies. To give context, this index compares nations that have similar income and development levels to one another, in addition to integrating all the countries into a single index.

Another ranking system, the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings (WUR), focuses on universities rather than whole countries. These rankings measure institutions by performance across four areas: teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook. Times Higher Education also publishes Impact Rankings of universities worldwide, which measure universities against the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and evaluates research, stewardship, outreach, and teaching to determine the pecking order.

A matter of money

Funding enables innovation, and some ranking systems focus specifically on public and private R&D spending. Two of the most influential are NSF’s lists of universities by R&D expenditures and countries by GERD and R&D intensity. Governments are keenly focused on these indices as global competition heats up and investment in R&D is perceived as a measure of commitment to innovation. In the United States alone, federal funding for all fields of science and engineering research more than tripled in the past 50 years, and other nations (like China) are upping their investments significantly.

Keeping tabs on international R&D rankings ensures that decision-makers everywhere can ensure they stay competitive by allocating appropriate funding to support current science and technology investment. Staying on top requires putting dollars where they count the most—and keeping an eye on where the competition is putting theirs.

Why it matters

The GKI and the GII rank the United States as number one in the world for university-industry collaboration in R&D, recognizing the value of cross-sector partnerships to solve complex problems. While players argue about the methodologies for ranking who is the “best” at knowledge creation or innovation, the competition itself fuels R&D and the resulting products, services, and processes that improve our lives. Weak spots are an opportunity to evaluate priorities and sow the seeds of partnership that can reap maximum impact when the next annual ranking comes along.

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The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.